In 2020, former journalist Portia Putatunda did what many of us only dream of. She packed her bags, bade goodbye to a fulfilling career, and with her hard-earned savings set up a temporary school under the shade of a tree in Kaza, Himachal Pradesh.
In just six months, she set up a library and a primary learning centre, standing true to her commitment to transforming lives. Owing to geographical barriers, the school was shifted to the high-altitude terrain of Komic, at 15,500 feet, the highest village in the world. In 2021, she founded her NGO, Planet Spiti Foundation, and established the Planet Spiti Residential School in 2022.
With a journalism career spanning over a decade, Putatunda has always believed in following her inner calling. And it was her heart's desire that brought her to the challenging terrain of Spiti. Even during her travels to this remote corner in 2013 and 2018, Portia recognised the pressing need for education and comprehensive care.
What started as a makeshift school in Kaza with three children is now a full-time boarding school. With students in the age group of three to ten, the number of children has now grown to 10.
Putatunda's life-changing decision was spurred by her father's death in 2016 that left a void in her life and pushed her into depression. However, it also gave birth to the idea of opening a school for children.
"My father Ramkrishna Putatunda was fond of children. From his posting in Ranchi when I was born, to his retirement in Mumbai, his boundless affection for children remained steady," Putatunda added. "His legacy of kindness and education motivates me to ensure his vision lives on."
For Putatunda, this school is not just a concrete structure but an institution of resilience empowering the 10 students from the far-flung villages of Spiti and Lahaul. It is a safe home for these young children, where they are loved, fed five meals a day, with enough firewood to keep them warm and smiling in the sub-zero temperatures.
"Living with the kids at the school 24/7 has played a pivotal role in nurturing this relationship. Our shared journey goes beyond the walls of a classroom. It's about shaping their educational paths, characters, and dreams," said Putatunda.
This holistic approach that goes beyond the conventional classroom has made Putatunda a teacher, caretaker, friend, and even a mother figure to these kids.
The challenging terrain of Spiti, traditional beliefs, and lack of awareness have created educational barriers and made parents averse to educating their kids.
"For some parents, the children's support in household chores is prioritised over schooling, while for others, the absence of proper educational facilities and funds hampers their willingness," said Putatunda, recalling her encounter with the locals.
On the economic front, the residential school cuts down on non-essential expenses when funds run dry. It looks for alternative ways to manage without the government's monetary support.
"Upon our request last year, the local administration donated a mobile toilet unit. However, there has not been any financial or substantial support from them," added Putatunda.
Portia's optimism has brought in a noticeable shift in parents' perception towards education since the formation of the free boarding school.
"Parents are beginning to recognise that education holds the key to a brighter future for their children. Their scepticism and apprehension about the fact that I am an outsider, have subsided," she said.
Portia envisions growing the school beyond its current capacity, helping more children from the remote corners of Spiti. Besides, integrating sustainable practices such as agriculture, traditional local food preservation, and water conservation remains in her vision of an alternative education curriculum.
The school has already conducted health campaigns and worked extensively on treating lice—a prevalent issue affecting over 90 per cent of children and adults in the valley. Likewise, empowerment of the locals, especially women, also remains her priority.
Her journey is a reminder that change doesn't always require grand gestures; even small steps can ripple into transformation.
Portia doesn't foresee shifting her base back to the city anytime soon. "The children's smiles keep me grounded here. I also wish to adopt a couple of children and settle down here," she said.
Address: Planet Spiti Residential School, Komic, Spiti Valley, 172114, Himachal Pradesh